Colorado

TCAP reading results reveal trends

Nearly three-fourths of Colorado third-graders are reading at grade level, a slight increase that matches the highest proficiency mark achieved in the past ten years, according to results released Wednesday.

A student at work in Sheridan's Fort Logan Elementary, where Wednesday's results show third-grade reading scores are on the rise.

Results of the first administration of the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, which is replacing the Colorado Student Assessment Program as the state shifts to new academic standards, show 73.9 percent of third-graders scored proficient or advanced.

Proficiency rates have hovered between 70 and 74 percent since at least 2003.

That leaves 25 percent of the state’s third-graders – more than 16,000 mostly 9-year-olds – struggling to master basic literacy skills.

More boys than girls need literacy help as third-grade tests provide the first look at a reading gender gap that persists through high school. A seven-point gap separates girls from boys on the 2012 third-grade exam; the most recent tenth-grade exams revealed a 13-point divide.

Gaps are similarly revealed by income and ethnicity on the third-grade reading tests, with 26 points separating students eligible for federal lunch aid and their more affluent peers. And 25-point gaps divide Hispanic and black students from their white classmates.

Those gaps have been cited in recent legislative debates about a literacy bill but the bill is not linked to statewide exams. Instead, the bill – approved Wednesday by state lawmakers – calls for existing early childhood literacy tests to assess whether third-graders meet a “significant reading deficiency” standard to be set by the State Board.

Highs and lows among schools

Some familiar school names show up at both ends of the spectrum in gains and declines on the TCAP results.

Center’s Haskin Elementary, recently profiled by EdNews, saw its scores rise 35 percentage points in a single year, from 41 percent of students achieving reading proficiency to 76 percent.

Haskin Elementary Principal Kathy Kulp works after school with students as part of an intense literacy focus in the Center School District.

The 310-student school in the rural San Luis Valley is wrapping up its second year of a three-year, $1.6 million federal School Improvement Grant, awarded to the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

Last year’s scores also saw a big jump, from 28 percent proficiency to 41 percent.

Center Superintendent George Welsh, a key player in the recent Lobato school funding lawsuit, said the results show more money spent well can make a difference.

“I think the results we are achieving are a real life indication that a significant infusion of dollars, spent wisely in targeted areas, can produce the kinds of results the state has striven for through the education system it has designed,” he said.

“Without the training and resource opportunities that were afforded to us through our turnaround grant, we would probably still be where we were in 2010 when only 28 percent of our third-graders could read at grade level.”

Part of Center’s federal funding went to Lindamood-Bell, a for-profit company focused on intensive literacy training, including implementing summer and after-school academies for struggling readers. The company moved a trainer into Center for 18 months.

At the other end of the spectrum, Denver’s Beach Court Elementary saw its third-grade scores drop by 25 to 38 percentage points on the English and Spanish-language reading exams over the past two years.

“The district regularly reviews all test scores for any signs of unusual patterns and takes the necessary follow-up action.”
— Mike Vaughn, DPS

Beach Court, a high-poverty neighborhood school in Northwest Denver, has been publicly lauded over the years for its high performance.

This year’s, 40 percent of the school’s third-graders scored proficient or advanced on the English exam, down from 78 percent last year and 85 percent the year before. On the Spanish version, the proficiency rate was 48 percent, down from 73 percent in 2011 and 92 percent in 2010.

Beach Court’s veteran principal, Frank Roti, did not return a call seeking comment.

“The district regularly reviews all test scores for any signs of unusual patterns and takes the necessary follow-up action,” DPS spokesman Mike Vaughn said.

Asked if the district sent monitors to Beach Court during TCAP testing this year, Vaughn responded that monitors were in “a couple dozen schools” to ensure “proper testing procedures” were followed.

He said he did not know if Beach Court was among them and declined additional comment.

Results of school reform efforts

In terms of growth, Center’s Haskin led all 14 of Colorado’s SIG elementary schools – meaning they’re the recipients of federal grants after having been deemed among the lowest-performing in the U.S.

But Westminster Elementary in the Adams 50 Westminster school district wasn’t far behind, with a 34-point gain over last year.

Five other SIG schools also posted double-digit gains in 2012; only one SIG school, Mapleton’s Meadow Community School, saw a decline.

Sheridan’s Fort Logan Elementary, another SIG school recently profiled by EdNews, continued its gradual but steady increase. Its reading proficiency rate grew to 52 percent, up 7 points in the past two years.

Nathaniel Stuart, a student at Sheridan's Fort Logan Elementary, focuses on literacy.

Denver Public Schools touted gains at several schools undergoing major reforms, including two receiving federal SIG grants.

At West Denver’s Greenlee Elementary, part of a contentious 2009 reform proposal, third-graders posted a 21-point gain over last year. Fifty-five percent of third-graders were reading at grade level on this year’s exams.

Greenlee’s principal was replaced in fall 2010 when a new literacy program was adopted. The school also was restructured, shifting from a K-8 to an elementary school.

In Far Northeast Denver, two elementary schools that were part of another controversial reform plan approved in 2011, also saw gains.

Both Green Valley and McGlone elementaries saw 17-point increases in third-grade reading proficiency over last year.  Reform efforts at those schools included the requirement that teachers reapply for their jobs this past fall.

Another Denver school reform effort, the teacher-led Math and Science Leadership Academy, also saw strong gains. MSLA third-graders nearly doubled their reading proficiency, from 24 percent to 52 percent.

School district ups and downs

DPS continued to lead the state’s largest districts in reading proficiency growth, with 59 percent of third-graders performing at grade level.

That’s the highest result achieved by the district since state testing began, according to a press release.

Results from the state’s ten largest districts ranged from a 3-point bump in Denver to a 2-point drop in Fort Collins.

Rankings for the big ten districts align closely, though not completely, with poverty rates – Boulder and Douglas County, with poverty below 20 percent, produced the highest scores. Denver and Aurora, with poverty rates topping 65 percent, produced the lowest scores.

Among all metro-area districts, Adams 50 Westminster had the biggest single-year gain.

The district, which has eliminated traditional grade levels and advances students based on proficiency, saw its third-grade reading scores increase six points, from 41 percent proficiency to 47 percent.

Littleton Public Schools produced the highest results of all metro-area districts, with an 88 percent proficiency rate. Its growth also continues, improving six points since 2010.

Trends evident in the TCAP results: Fewer students taking Spanish-language exams and small districts reporting no public results because they have few test-takers.

Another district of interest, the state Charter School Institute, saw its overall third-grade proficiency rate decline eight points, from 77 percent to 69 percent.

Two other trends are evident in the TCAP results, with fewer students taking Spanish-language exams and small districts reporting no public results because they have few test-takers.

Colorado state exams are available in Spanish only in grades 3 and 4. The number of third-graders taking the Spanish version of the reading tests has declined from 1,500 in 2008 to 1,200 in 2012.

And the number of Colorado school districts with no public test scores – meaning they have fewer than 16 third-graders taking the state exams – continues its gradual climb. The state doesn’t report scores for fewer numbers because of privacy concerns.

In 2011 and 2012, 48 of the state’s 182 districts reported fewer than 16 young test-takers. This year, the Agate school district reported a single third-grader. In 2010, 44 districts had no public third-grade scores.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.